In all the mainstream media discussions on Brexit – which have been overflowing with discussions on politics, economics, law, demographics and racism – the matter of the future of the English language in Europe has been overlooked and yet it is an important matter. The Brexit result is pregnant with irony: whilst the UK’s leaving breaks EU unity its English language might remain to unite Europe.
To understand the irony let’s take up the story of the English language in 1972, when the UK joined what later morphed in to the EU. At that time, European legislation mandated that German, French, Italian and Dutch were the official and working languages of the union. The English language officially did not exist in Europe. However, if we step outside European Officialdom and enter Europe’s creative environments of commerce, technology and science we find that the English language did exist, it was evolving in to an important working language, a conduit language, connecting European participants in commerce, technology and science with their counterparts in other parts of the world (e.g., US, Canada, India, Japan and Australia).
The English language was not and is not important in Europe because it is a better language or that Britain has a superior claim to literature or culture because on most criterion English and Britain would struggle to match some of the European alternatives. Rather, the English language is important in Europe because of the serendipity of British history, the American Revolutionary War of 1777-1783. At that time, English was the official and working language of what was British America and it had been for 170 years starting with the colonisation of Virginia in 1607. Yet, the 13 colonies making up British America decided to revolt and leave the British Empire in what was their own Brexit and go on to form a successful union, the United States of America (US). And although one view of history shows that the revolutionist’s success owed much to the support of France when it came time for them to model their future the revolutionists rejected many British traditions but serendipitously they did not reject English as the national language in favour of French or evolve their own American language, for example.
Now, let’s fast-forward the story of the English language from British America to our own contemporary times and as we are all aware the US evolved to gain global pre-eminence in the fields of commerce, technology and science. Studying the history of US success in these fields informs us that much of it stems from US egalitarian values, modelled by the revolutionists, which intuitively encourage open access to the fertile grounds in which many American, British and Europeans have united in collaboration to nurture fragile ideas and grow them in to things which go on to change the world for the better. And that collaboration was and is and will be in the future conducted in the English language. Thus it follows that the jobs of the future, the smart jobs, in the fields of commerce, technology and science will find expression in full or in part in the English language. And so, it is reasonable to propose that English will remain an important working language in Europe if Europeans are to maintain their relevance in the globalisation of commerce, technology and science.
Now let’s trace the story of the English language armed with the aforementioned proposition and see how the English language impacts on European children, the future of Europe! We find ourselves in Poland, a new member of the EU. Born in Krakow, Jola, our fictional character, will be educated under the Polish education system. During her school years she will learn Polish, which is mandatory, and she will also learn two foreign languages. At school, Jola develops a passion for biology and will go on to study genetics at Poland’s famous Jagiellonian University in Krakow . At university, if not before, she will quickly appreciate that the body of knowledge of genetics is written not in Polish and nor is it written in the languages mandatory in the EU when the UK joined but predominately written in the English language. And even though a research paper might introduce a genetic breakthrough and originate in a European language, like many do, for it to gain global acceptance among peers and enter the global body of knowledge it will be translated in to English and many of the research papers it refers to will be written in English. So for Jola, participating in the field of science requires her to learn the English language.
And Jola is in luck thanks to the foresight of the Polish education system. If she was born so as to be in school in 2005, then it is likely that her first foreign language will be English: in 2005, English was learnt by 68% of Polish schoolchildren, followed by German (33%) and French (13%) . And so even at the time of Poland’s entry in to the EU (2004), learning English was well under way in Polish schools. And that preference for English was only to grow and so much so that if Jola was in school in 2014, then it is almost certain that her second language is English given that English is now learnt by 90%  of Polish schoolchildren. And the story of the English language in Poland is typical of elsewhere in the EU. Of the 28 member states, the English language predominates it is learnt in 94% of the states, whereas French (23%) and German (19%) no longer dominate as they did in 1972 .
And while a case can be made which argues that after Brexit the importance of English in Polish schools might decline in favour of German, for example, such a case falls at the first hurdle when answering the question, whether or not in the field of science Jola would be better off learning German rather than English. Jola might need to learn both English and German but like so many Europeans she recognises that the global language of commerce, technology and science is predominately expressed in the English language. And so it is more likely than not that even though the UK leaves the EU, its English language will remain to unite Europe.
1 Jagiellonian University is where Copernicus studied
2 Students in Polish schools typically learn one or two foreign languages. Generally, in 2005/06 the most popular obligatory foreign languages in Polish schools were: English – 67.9%, German – 33.3%, French – 13.3%, Spanish – 10.2%, Russian – 6.1%, Italian – 4.3%, Latin – 0.6%, and Others – 0.1%. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Poland
4 http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Foreign_language_learning_statisticsTags: Europe
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This post was written by Mark Horner